Being a Woman in the “Mans” World

Even though it’s been ~40 years since the second wave of the women’s movement, in which there was a focus on gender equality in laws and culture, there are still many industries that are considered to be “men’s” fields, including the engineering and IT industries. Women in their 20s and 30s were raised to believe that they can do whatever they want to, and so there are quite a few (myself included) who studied and started to practice professionally in these technical fields. There are a variety of reasons we went in to these fields – perhaps we found that we were good at math and science and enjoyed problem solving, we realized the higher lifetime income that would be expected in these professions, or we were drawn to being part of something where we stood out in the crowd because of our lower total numbers.

But how are these women taken by their counterparts in these fields? A recent blog post hosted by the Anita Borg Institute reflects on the fact that the world is full of stereotypes, and that because of those, only women with the highest levels of self-confidence and levels of achievement choose to stick around technical professions. When some people firmly believe that women are not good in computing, and thus that they are not good in computer games or in making software or building hardware, it can be daunting for most women to push through and keep trying to succeed.

Because of this stereotyping, many younger girls who have not yet established a high level of self confidence find themselves hiding in their own skin. They are afraid to keep trying and show the world how good they are or can be in the world of math and technology. There are women who are able to embrace their femininity while excelling in technical fields, and I do believe this changes stereotypes, but it is long process of repeated mini successes to make that change over many years.

A recent series of articles in the Wall Street Journal has brought more light to the concerns of women in the workforce in general, not just in the IT and engineering fields. The Women in the Economy conference brought together 200 influential men and women to discuss how to improve the impact of the female workforce in both the US and worldwide.

Almost 90% of CEOs agreed that making better use of female talent is critical to being competitive in today’s environment. Women are considered to be the brains and drivers behind the economy. They are the decision makers at home as to what products to purchase, what to prioritize and what to no longer spend time and money on. It is a logical extension that women are well positioned to be at the top of consumer manufacturing industries, as they understand the customer point of view and have a better outlook as to what products should be maintained and / or developed. Additionally, (in the spirit of stereotypes), women are believed to have higher levels of emotional intelligence, which makes a big difference in the teamwork and group productivity that is critical to success in the workplace.

Women are holding ~53% of entry level positions, but as you go up in the organization, those numbers go down, to 35% at director level positions and 19% at C-suite positions. As this is happening, some of the good (or best) talent is certainly being lost. Additionally, women will often take on harder or not as desired roles to prove themselves, which leads to them going down a career path of staff positions (as opposed to direct profit/loss responsibility). So, even when you have women at higher levels of an organization, it is often in staff roles.

A study by the Ivey Business Journal cited several reasons for this continued problem. Sometimes there is lack of opportunity for women in the top executive levels because there is corporate, cultural bias. Sometimes it is the women who opt out of being nominated for higher positions, because they think that the position is better suited for men. Sometimes women don’t ask for things and are willing to settle for less than they are capable of being and doing.

So are the tides really turning, as I wrote about last week? More companies believe in advancing more women into the top positions. More business advisers are reinforcing tool kits or guidelines for companies to be successful in preparing and then choosing women for middle management and executive positions, as came out of the WSJ conference.

I think responsibility also lies with each of us as individuals. Don’t hold back from doing what you are capable of, and don’t get hung up worrying about what others may be thinking. Keep after the things that you are passionate about, and if you find the work environment of your company isn’t giving you the support you need, leave the company, but don’t leave the field altogether. Encourage other women, and trust in their ability to get the job done.

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About Tamra Johnson

I’m an entrepreneur and a recent MBA graduate from UCLA Anderson. I have 10 years of experience in IT Management and Systems Engineering. I love learning, helping others, exploring the world around me, running at the beach, going to concerts, and visiting family and friends. I grew up in Helotes, Texas, went to undergrad in Cambridge, MA, and now live in Venice, CA.
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